One of the misconceptions people have about Quiet Light is that we do more e-commerce than content transactions. Fun fact, our top two transactions ever have been content and SaaS deals.
Our guest today, Bruno Bornsztein, is a web entrepreneur who has conquered the content domain via his two websites, Curbly, and Mandmade DIY. Bruno is what we like to call an “old school” entrepreneur, someone who successfully combines his own web development expertise with entrepreneurship. Equal parts content creator, developer, businessman, and design aficionado, Bruno got his start during the wild west days of the influencer platform. Nowadays, he’s in the process of launching a new SaaS product to make success more fluid for influencers.
- The starting up of Curbly, the monetization, and the changes the site took on over the years.
- At what point the site started publishing sponsored posts for large companies and how these companies found him.
- We delve into the world of influencer marketing and how Bruno built a brand, rather than an individual, that then became the influencer.
- We discuss how influencers should pull back from the spotlight rather than build that personal brand that cannot operate without their personal daily input.
- The metrics that exist to measure the influencer impact.
- Bruno talks about his transition from a content site to building his Influencer Kit Saas tool and the phase the product is in now.
- The potential challenges in scaling The Influencer Kit quickly to meet market need.
- The target clients for The Influencer Kit tool.
Joe: Mark, one of the things that I think is a bit of a misnomer here about Quiet Light is people think that we do much more e-commerce physical product business brokering than we do content. And in fact the largest transaction I’ve ever done, the top two have been content and SaaS. And I understand you had a friend of yours, Bruno from one of your Mastermind groups on to talk about both that … just both content and a new SaaS business that he’s got from his own content site. Can you chat about that?
Mark: Yeah of course. Yeah, Bruno … the guy is an old school entrepreneur and I’m doing air quotes right now for old school because in the world of the Internet is there an old school yeah? But in my opinion, he’s old school because the guy started out developing his own stuff. When he started his first business Curbly.com which is a home improvement blog. He developed the code himself, designed everything, and then he was writing the blog post as well. And now that he’s transitioning into a new SaaS product called InfluenceKit he’s once again developing the code on the backend and doing pretty much everything on his own and lives in that world of web development plus entrepreneurialism. A super, super smart guy when it comes to that side of it. So he and I actually … this podcast is really just he and I catching up online and walking down memory lane. But there were a couple of things that came out of this that I thought were fascinating. And one thing that I love about his business Curbly, and there’s a couple of other guys that I talked to here local to me in the content world, is they’re treating their businesses like influencers and they actually talk about it as influencer marketing. And I don’t know about you Joe but I … when I think of an influencer I think of that 21 year old model wearing sneakers and putting them on Instagram and getting paid just to post wearing those sneakers or is just like that right? The personality based influencers. But what these guys are doing is they have their blogs which are completely irrelevant to their personality and I’m not … calling it a blog might be a little bit meaning because it has so much more content than that but these sites are influential. They have lots of followers for what they’re doing and large companies are coming to them and paying them to use their products and write about those products through to their sites. So when you look at a content site we often think well how do you monetize that? Well there is AdThrive, there’s Google AdSense, and maybe you charge for advertising but these guys are generating quite a bit more money by getting these sponsored posts. So Bruno and I talked a lot about that. We talked about how did he get into this in the first place with these sponsored posts, how did he attract some of these larger advertisers which are obviously paying quite a bit to have these sponsored posts. But then we talked about his next venture which is getting into that SaaS base. He realized that these companies that were paying him to do these sponsored posts, they wanted good metrics. They wanted to know how many people were clicking on the post and viewing them, how many people were sharing these posts. And so he develops offer internally for that reporting, now he’s developing a full on SaaS product and we talked about how do you grow a new SaaS business the right way because everyone thinks … and I’m sure you’ve seen this Joe in the SaaS community, you kind of have this idea of all right you create your product, get the right fit, and then just scale, scale, scale, scale, scale, right? Well, not always right? And he wants to make sure that he scales the right way and has a really good product market fit.
Joe: Yeah I think doing it slow and doing it right is much more important than trying to get big … too big too fast because you make mistakes and lose good customers along the way because they’ll go somewhere else. I love the sounds of this because as you said most of the content sites that we’ve brokered are using AdSense and AdThrive and things of that nature. Even the largest one that I did was and there’s not a whole lot of sponsored posts that are driving revenue. So I think that’s fantastic and I love the off shoot of an entrepreneur telling his story or her story about how they had another business, in this case, the SaaS product to serve those customers that were doing sponsored posts. So I think it’s great. Let’s go to it.
Mark: Hey Bruno thanks for joining me. I really appreciate you taking the time here for a quick conversation. You and I are local to each other. We meet up once every few months with a couple of other guys and just talk shop so it’s kind of weird to be talking to you.
Bruno: I know we should almost just get together in the same spot, right?
Mark: That would have been good planning on my part and you know I don’t do necessarily great planning all the time. So we have a little tradition here at the Quiet Light podcast where we have our guest introduce themselves. We like to say it’s because you know yourself better than I do but really it’s just because I don’t do show prep so—
Bruno: Sure. Guess what I didn’t do any show prep either so I think I could probably introduce you better than me. So my name is … as you know my entrepreneurial, Bornsztein. I’m a local St. Paul guy like you are. And my background is in publishing online and web development. So I’m really a web developer who got into running digital content sites for a long time. So what that looks like is I launched a blog called Curbly.com in 2006 and another blog called ManMade DIY in 2010. I ran those for 10 years or more and in the last couple years I’ve been focusing on a new project called InfluenceKit which is a Software as a Service product that’s targeted at digital influencers, content creators, basically people like who I used to be.
Mark: Right now you come from this kind of old school or what I consider to be old school Internet entrepreneur. And I used to fall in this category. The first business that I built online, I built the code and I built it in Pearl if you can believe that and I didn’t know a lick of code but I figured it out. You’re still doing that to this day though, right? I mean like InfluenceKit it’s a SaaS product you’re building; we’ll talk about that in a minute. You’re doing most of the development on that.
Bruno: Yeah I’m the lead developer for InfluenceKit. I was also lead technical person for my content sites which was good and bad. There’s upsides and downsides to being technical like that. I like you, learned to do a lot of this stuff a long time ago when the way that you were to do web development was usually do source. So a lot of things I learned was just by looking at another site, looking at the source, trying to pick apart how it worked. Fortunately, that process has gotten a lot more easier now so there’s a lot more resources out there for people to learn how to become web developers. But yeah I definitely like being involved in the technical side. I think the challenge for me is figuring out when to disengage from that and how much I should be involved and how much I need to try to delegate. So that’s definitely something that I’m working on.
Mark: Yeah. Alright so I want to start out and I want to break this conversation into two parts, I want to talk about InfluenceKit and what you’re building there in the SaaS realm but I want to talk also about Curbly and ManMade DIY is that right? Okay. You and also I know some of the other guys that we know have a model with their content sites. I think a lot of people when they hear content sites are just thinking okay I’m going to put something up. I’m going to put on pass a bad network and just kind of run from there but you guys do quite a bit more. Tell me a little bit about starting up Curbly and maybe the beginning story of that and then what its primary means of monetization has been over the years.
Bruno: Yeah it’s actually kind of an interesting story because it wasn’t really intended to be a blog. The way Curbly came about was this: I was doing freelance web development; I took a contract building a social network, this was in 2005. This was before Facebook was publicly available to everybody. You still had to have an EDU address to get in. And this network that we built was intended to kind of like compete with that in some sense. After that project was done I had some time on my hands, a little bit of money saved up, so a friend of mine and I decided to build something and being the sort of non-strategic person that I am we just kind of … it was a little bit random; I had bought a house, I was working in my house that was kind of an area that interested me so somehow without a whole lot of forethought we came on this idea of a social network for home improvement. The idea that Curbly was meant to be was a social network UGC site … User Generated Content site that all was focused around the home, design … I’m remodeling my kitchen here’s pictures of what I want to do, I’m looking for ideas for my bathroom does anybody have some? It sounds a lot like a site you’ve probably heard of which is House. House is that. I think we wanted Curbly to be House, we just didn’t really know it at that time. So what ended up happening was Curbly sort of organically transitioned into something else. When we started the site we built it really quickly in about six weeks, the MBP of it. And the first thing was well we don’t have any content on here how are people going to want to like join this social network when there’s nothing there. So we just posted for it; freelance writers on Craigslist and had people start kind of seeing content. And that was not because we wanted to be a publisher or a media company but because we just wanted something on the site. But over the first three or four years it just kind of … I realized that there was a business model there and that was easier actually than trying to become House. And for a variety of reasons turning into House just like didn’t happen. But I learned that actually there was a way of generating high quality content for a reasonable price using freelancers and in monetizing that. So yeah over the course we were really lucky with Curbly. I think in our first month we went from zero to 250,000 patrons a month.
Mark: Wait, wait halt. What? How did you do that? Was it all organic SEO or were you keying in on other—?
Bruno: No it was luck. We got to be lucky, we got on Dig, we got on … remember Dig?
Mark: I remember Dig. I got Dig to the front page maybe twice in my life.
Bruno: We got on Dig, we got on a few other things; Life Hacker it was a big blog back then and they posted a link to one of our project that somebody posted. Yeah, it was just lucky. I talk about this a lot … like sometimes if you would ask me at the time in November or December 2006 after Curbly had been live for two months like how things were going I would’ve been … I would think I would have said uhh I don’t know, it’s okay not great. And I just think I talk to a lot of like younger entrepreneurs about this a lot which is that at the beginning it’s really hard to know whether you’re succeeding or failing especially if you don’t have any experience. So the way I’d phrase that is success or failure look the same a lot of times when you’re just starting out. And it’s really about experience and context. So at the time, our goal was to build House, right? And so we wanted 250,000 users to sign up to Curbly because that’s … active users was the metric we were looking at. And because we didn’t have that, because we weren’t seeing that it was kind of like what are we doing wrong? It’s not working. Not really appreciating that we had actually been really successful in another way that we didn’t understand. So I think for anybody who’s … is entrepreneurial but maybe hasn’t done a lot of things before just remember that you maybe … it may be very difficult to disentangle whether you’re succeeding or failing you just don’t … you might not have enough experience to really know the difference.
Mark: Yeah I know with Quiet Light it was the same thing. For the first five, six, seven years of Quiet Light I did the same thing and people would ask me like well what are your plans and I’m like I don’t know I might just make a boutique and not really do much more with it or I might just kind of wind it down over the next few years. But I just kept kind of going and going and going and it wasn’t until I really went to hire Jason on initially, Jason Yellowitz, that I was kind of like there might actually be something here that I wasn’t expecting. But you’re right, success and failure do look the same. At the beginning at least they can look the same. When did you start taking on these sponsored posts and just to be clear for everyone listening you do have like AdThrive and stuff like that that you monetize through but a big bulk of your revenue is coming from getting sponsored posts from major companies like Home Depot and other large companies that are looking at your traffic, at your audience and saying we want that audience so we’re going to pay you to test this product or to be able to feature this product in one of your DIY stuff. When did you start making that transition?
Bruno: Yeah 2009 was the very first sponsored thing that we ever did. So that was very early on. It was with a fabric company who I won’t name but it was kind of a failure for a variety of different reasons. But it was the first time we got paid just to create content on behalf of a brand. And then it ramped up. So I would say in 2009, 0% of our revenue was sponsored content or influencer marketing [is what it’s called now and 100% was … you know the rest about probably 95% was programmatic display ads and the rest was affiliate links. And then back then it was even okay to do text links. That quickly went sour but there was a period where it was okay to have text links on your site. And then probably by 2016, 50% of our revenue became sponsored content. So it did sort of take a little while to ramp up. And it took a while before we started seeing interest from established brands and agencies. But definitely by 2012, 2013 you are starting to get pitches from PR agencies, brands, ad agencies that were interested in partnering with you to talk about their products.
Mark: So what changed for those agencies to start recognizing you? Did you have to do outreach for that or was it really just them picking up on the metrics that you guys were supporting at the time?
Bruno: You know I think a little of both. I definitely started doing … being proactive once I saw that there was an opportunity to make real money there. And so definitely being proactive, reaching out to people even just replying, you know we always got … as any kind of publisher, you’re always going to get a lot of press releases and inquiries and people that want you to talk about their thing. So by proactive, I even mean just replying to those and saying like hey you know we’re not necessarily going to cover this product this month but if you’re interested in sponsored content we have these opportunities. So just being like a lot more responsive and offering that. I think on their side they didn’t really start seeing metrics until much later. Even today a lot of influencer marketing happens with very little metric reporting which is something that InfluenceKit is trying to change. But I don’t know that it was that they started seeing big metrics I think it was that the people that were working in those organizations were more digitally native. Like they understood that landscape more. In 2009 I mean I … in 2009 I had people who didn’t know what a blog was. There were still people who are like what’s a blog, why would I … how do you make money on it, how would you … why would a company pay to have their content on it or whatever? By 2016 that wasn’t happening anymore. Everybody knew what a blog was. Everybody knew what social media was. And so the idea that a brand would want to communicate with your audience just made more sense. They understood that like okay blogs are a real thing. They have a real audience. They’re communicating … they’re able to communicate your message and help you get your branding out there. And so I think it just became a little bit easier to convince them of that.
Mark: Yeah it reminds me of … do you remember Darren Rowse from ProBlogger?
Mark: He was kind of the big guy who was making all the push of saying you know what these blogs you can actually make a lot of money with them.
Mark: A bit at the forefront of this movement. We’re getting in this weird, wild world of influencer marketing something which I know very, very little about personally. And I think one of the interesting observations here … and I’m sure a lot of people listening are kind of like well yeah, of course, Mark just kind of get with the program but it’s the idea that I think influencers I think that Instagram person, right? Up on Instagram on and it’s the person themselves and they’re making sure that all the pictures have the same colors in them and fit the 3 by 3 matrix that they want to have so it looks all nice. But Curbly itself was the influencer in this in this situation.
Mark: So you built a brand that was an influencer.
Bruno: Yeah. Yes. So Curbly always was … Curbly never had a … it was never a personality driven site and that helped us in some ways and hurt us in some ways. But yes in our case it was much more about the site than any individual person contributing to the site. Because our site was driven by people like freelancers and a few staff people that were creating the content. But in general yeah there is much … you do seem more of like the individual sort of pseudo celebrity influencer although there is a lot more out there than just that. There are a lot of sites out there that aren’t so tied to the individual that’s running them that’s really more about the content that they create and the audience that they are able to pull together.
Mark: Yeah [inaudible 00:18:39.7] anything about like the other guys who are now over [inaudible 00:18:42.4], right? Totally the same sort of thing where they can do that and be a full blogger pro as well right and all the brands that he and Lindsey have as well which is so influential for what they do.
Bruno: I think a lot of bloggers and digital content creators that I talk to this is a topic that comes up because in terms of selling sponsored content it can be easier if you are sort of a known personality. But in terms of actually having that be your business not … first, not everybody wants to do that because it is difficult to have … to be that kind of an influencer you really have to expose so much of your personal life and really be vulnerable and that’s not for everybody. Not everybody wants to do that. And then just from a … strictly from a sort of business strategy point of view, it’s not always smart to make the business so reliant on you. You may be a huge Instagram influencer bringing down a lot of money through your influencer contracts but what do you do when you want to sell that business? That’s a really hard business to get out of. It’s a really hard business to cut back because if you want to say like scale back your work or you have a family or a kid who’s going to take over that role? So I have talked to a lot of those types of influencers about like how can you sort of start to pull yourself back. How can you supplement your business and make it a little bit more sustainable and not so reliant on you as a person?
Mark: Yeah absolutely. That’s the same advice that we would give anybody out there is that I totally get the appeal of a building a personal brand. And I think a lot of people start with that in mind. Like I’m going to build a brand around myself, I’m going to be the celebrity. But then you get to the point where like this is a lot of work and I’ve been growing it for five years and I’m tired of posting my life for the public to see every single day and so how do you convert that over to an actual business? It can be done and I’ve seen a few cases where people have done it but it’s a process.
Bruno: It is and I just think it’s something that … you know because so many of these businesses do start off as hobbies or side projects it’s not something that people think about right away but I think it is important to think about. You need to start thinking about it as a business, building a team that can support you. If you need to be the face of the brand okay that might be fine as long as you are thinking about it and I’m also thinking about how that might affect your ability like you said to sell a business or change your involvement in the business.
Mark: Yeah. Alright, let’s talk a little bit about the influencer marketing side of it and the metrics and just kind of moves into what you’re doing now with InfluenceKit. You said it yourself there’s not a lot of metrics that were necessarily expected from the people or even deliverable for the people that were paying for these sponsored posts. What have you done there and maybe through Curbly or that you just kind of learned over the years that’s really helpful for somebody paying for a sponsored post to start to key in on in terms of those metrics.
Bruno: Yeah I mean really where this came out of was like I said around 2016 we started doing a lot of sponsored content. And the first problem we had was just producing it efficiently. Not even reporting on it but just like honestly making sure that we did everything we promised we would do. I mean I know it sounds kind of silly but when you’re doing … I think that we were probably doing three blog posts a day on Curbly, we’re doing something like four or five sponsored projects or campaigns a month on Curbly. That’s just a lot of moving parts. Like did we … are we supposed to do Instagram for Home Depot and how many pins were we supposed to do and what was the blog post supposed to include and is it cap is it the Home Depot or just Home Depot? I mean these are all little details but it makes of a difference when you start working with those brands because they expect a level of professionalism and you want to deliver that. So that was the first problem it was like okay we just don’t have a good system for this. And that’s kind of where the precursor to InfluenceKit came. It was just an internal tool that I built to help our team. Just to help everybody keep on the same page, what we have to do, when is it due, did we do it; simple right? And we used that. We used that tool for a long time. We used it both for our sponsor content but also for our editorial planning. It was great. It was really helpful. Then at 2017, 2018 I started thinking like man, we’re just not doing a very good job of showing these sponsors their ROI of what we did for them. Like they’re paying us money, we’re getting good deals, we’re getting as much money as we think we should be getting, we’re creating this really good content but that’s kind of where it stops. And I realized that that was a weakness. And so then I started looking at well how can we report, how can we go back and report on this? Doing it manually sucks and I’m somebody like if I do something twice I never want to have to do it again. Like once I’ve done something twice I’m like okay I should build something. So that’s where InfluenceKit came out of. And it really just lets you automate the reporting piece of that process. So that for us, when we’re doing, say four sponsored campaigns a month each of those campaigns might have four or five separate deliverables; things that we have to deliver back to the brand and report on. That’s 20 different things. We can just dump those on to InfluenceKit and send the brand a report. So yeah I mean that’s kind of where we’re at now. The industry as a whole is really kind of still up in the air, people are starting to ask for a lot more metrics but not all. And that’s kind of part of my mission with InfluenceKit is. I want to see every blogger doing this. I think it’s to their benefit and I think that the biggest benefit is going to be when the industry realizes that there is reporting on this stuff they’re going to start opening the floodgates. And by that I mean there’s going to be a lot more money coming in and available to do this kind of stuff because they can actually measure the results.
Mark: Let’s talk about InfluenceKit … and I love the transition here. You’ve been doing content, sponsored posts, all these and then internally like you said if you do something twice you want to build a tool for it and you started building the tool and it starts evolving and the next thing you know you have on your hands what could easily become a SaaS application which is what you are really focusing on right now. So you just finished an [inaudible 00:25:03.5] you just finished a kind of an introductory like get in the door sort of program with InfluenceKit for a limited number of people and you’re in the testing stage with them right now is that right?
Bruno: Yeah so we’re essentially in a sort of like a pre-launch phase right now we’re letting in a very limited number of people. And that’s really … that’s not because you know we’re snooty or anything it’s just there’s we’re a very small team. It’s myself and two other co-founders. And I think that we want to get it right. We’re trying to figure out and I think all SaaS apps probably deal with this but what’s the growth rate that we actually think we can achieve and we actually can support. I think that there might be a little bit of a misconception that you just like want to grow as fast as you can as soon as you can like just grow, grow, grow, grow. I don’t know but I don’t want to do that you know. I want to grow this business at a rate that is sustainable that we can actually keep up with. I don’t want to be working nights and weekends right now. So yeah we are … where we are is we’re letting people in. We’re kind of testing out the product with them making improvements and changes based on early customer feedback and then figuring out okay now what? Like we think we have product market fit, we spent about six months kind of convincing ourselves that that’s the case and now it’s like okay well how do we figure out how to grow and like I said at what rate we want to try to grow at.
Mark: So a couple of questions that can come to mind here, I’ll ask the easier one first and that is you talked about not wanting to necessarily just grow as fast you can, scale as fast as you can. What are some of the restraints that you’re seeing that if you were to open it back up and … our of millions of listeners are listening to this podcast and they start knocking on your door and they’re like hey we want in Bruno, we want in. What are some of the challenges that you guys would have in scaling quickly?
Bruno: Oh man I would say first of all let’s just back up and obviously it would be a great problem to have that million and millions of people—
Mark: It’s a good problem to have millions of listeners as well.
Bruno: You know I’m not like that and so I don’t want to just make that assumption. Obviously, we need to work really hard still to even have that problem. But what are the scaling problems? I think the first scaling problem would be people. SaaS apps at least ours, I suppose I should speak for everyone but ours are still pretty heavily dependent on people. You really need to support people, you need customer support, you need onboarding. There’s still a lot of time that goes into it and so that would be the first problem. Then with that comes a bunch of other problems like scaling an organization so that you’re building … yes, you’re building a product but you’re also building a company. And in some sense, the company is like the more important product because if you can build a good solid organization then you’ll do other good things and good products will come out of that. So we’re really trying to be conscious of that like okay if we suddenly had to hire three customer support people how would we do that? How would we train them? How would we all stay on task? So I think scaling up people would be a big constraint. From a tech point of view for sure, there are some things we’d run into as well. InfluenceKit, in particular, relies on a lot of API’s so … and for the non-technical people that just means we have to go out and grab stats from a bunch of different sources; Facebook, Instagram, Google Analytics. All of that takes server time. All of those API’s have rate limits. Whenever you’re building software you know doing something at a small scale and then just like growing it to a bigger scale is not as easy as just … it’s not like we multiply things linearly. Things get way more complicated, way more difficult to debug. And that’s not to say that I’m not excited about solving those problems; I am. But yeah I want to do it in a sane way. I think if we were to suddenly add … if we were suddenly to triple our user base like in a month I would be spending a lot of late nights doing things that I don’t want to be doing.
Mark: I totally understand that. Building the organization side I think is really important. Whenever you’re scaling anything at all having that foundation to be able to scale on is crucial because you will just completely buckle under the weight of growing rapidly. Who’s the client for InfluenceKit? Who are you trying to target? Obviously, digital creators would make sense but it’s not just mom bloggers.
Bruno: So we think of our customer as professional bloggers. I know that when we started out you kind of mentioned when you think of influencers you think Instagram and for sure you know that’s legit but as we talked about and we talked about this a lot who we can picture as our customer it’s somebody whose primary platform is content creation on a website that they own and their social platforms are supplementary to that. And when I say professional I mean like if they’re making their living off of this, like they’re supporting their family. They might even have an employee or two. We look at it anywhere from there up to what you might consider more like a small media organization; a site that has five or 10 or 20 employees. Beyond that, you don’t think about that really as our market so much because at that scale there are other tools for those people and you don’t really want to swim in those waters. So that’s really who we think about and the interesting thing is that we’ve started hearing from a lot of agencies and brands about this. Really not our plan but what’s happening is influencers are sending reports to their sponsors; the people that are paying them and then we’re hearing from them saying we could use this. A great problem to have, it’s a little bit like of an existential mini crisis for us because we’re all in front … we come from this background, we’re bloggers, we set out really with a mission to build a tool to help empower people like us and we don’t want to just like pivot and start serving a completely different market at the same time. I mean when you have people asking to use your thing and who wanted to pay you, you need to listen. So we’re trying to navigate that and see how we can do it.
Mark: Alright that sounds like a really good problem to have and sounds as well like we maybe pivoting down the road into matching influencers as well. Not to plan your path for you but it just seems like a natural extension that might be happening as well. Cool. Well, I really appreciate you coming on the podcast here talking about some of these things and I think we probably could have broken this up into two because just thinking about all the questions to deal with on the sell side. If I ask another question now we’d go on for 15 more minutes.
Mark: So I’m going to stop it now and I’m going to say I want to have you back to check in as you get past that kind of first initial enrollment and talk about how things have all been in this influencer space. I love the idea and just thinking about influencers outside of the Instagram model, thinking about it more in terms of a brand and just kind of this story is … well, it’s fantastic so thanks so much for coming on.
Bruno: Alright. Yeah thanks for having me. I’d be glad to come back and chat with you here on that episode.
Mark: Alright. Looking forward to meet up with you. See you again soon.
Bruno: Alright sounds good. Thanks, Mark.
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